Peter Stanford: Grant-makers and old boy networks

A Charity Commission report on the charity that bears Tony Blair's name suggests the regulator is worried about the wider implications for the world of trusts and foundations

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There is an oft-heard "we-are-all-in-it-together" approach that unites charities, trusts and foundations in what we call the third sector. It is a powerful rallying cry and a source of strength through solidarity, but in reality the claim bears no more scrutiny than the same line when heard from government ministers.

Among the very real differences between charities is the dividing line between those bodies that give money and those that take it to spend on projects. The line isn't, of course, absolute. Some organisations do both, and some people have a foot in both camps. I have sat on awards committees that hand out money to charitable organisations, but the vast majority of my time in our sector has been spent on the other side, with cap in hand.

Open access and equality of opportunity should be among the fundamental principles of our society, and naturally they should also extend to the giving and receiving of charitable funds. It should be a level playing field, with stated criteria and independent, objective decision-making bodies that follow them. Indeed, one might argue that these rules should be followed with even more vigour than usual in our world, because charities have to be whiter than white if they are to retain public confidence and support.

"Whiter than white" was, as it happens, a favourite phrase of Tony Blair's during his political career. The Charity Commission has recently published an operational case report on its investigation into the charity bearing the former Prime Minister's name, addressing allegations made by a former employee of the charity that its independence was compromised by interference from its founding patron in pursuit of his own personal goals, as opposed to its stated purposes.

The report gives the Tony Blair Faith Foundation a clean bill of health, but I believe that the decision to publish the report, and its firmly worded "lessons for others" section, is an indication that the regulator worries about the wider issues the case has raised. It made me think of the world of trusts and foundations, often set up by wealthy, high-profile people, which provide the cash for so much charitable work here and overseas. To stop them being swamped with applications, many of these bodies are closed shops to which you have to be invited to apply.

I appreciate the practical reasons for such arrangements – and, here, part of the problem is cap-in-handers like me who are forever sending off applications even when we are slightly off-centre from the stated criteria – but it is the impression given that causes concern. There is much debate in Britain right now about "old boy networks", because the Cabinet has a disproportionate number of alumni of one über-privileged school. The last thing our sector can afford is any taint, real or imagined, of that world in which who you know counts for more than what you do.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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